Why do we need a narrative mindset?

Photo credit: ©Carletto Del Monaco

Recently, the power of narrative attracts more attention in learning and transforming individuals, teams, and communities.

Why is a narrative mindset so crucial in this time of complex challenges? How is it related to our capacity for creating meaning, overcoming paradoxes and living in uncertainty?

My experience

Like all humans, I am not satisfied with just existing in this world. I continuously ask myself the questions “Why am I here? What am I doing here? What am I gonna do?”

We, humans, are meaning-seeking creatures.

I am trained as a physicist and worked as a scientist for more than a decade in the field of nanotechnology. Although the field I was working on is considered very “advanced”, I experienced a full immersion in the old, mechanistic paradigm, vastly extended in and beyond the disciplines of science and technology, to the organizational structure and the stakeholders’ system in the sector.

I found myself included as “a small piece in a machine” and, simultaneously, I was excluded from the same machine as its direction and purpose were dropped from above. In fact, as a scientist, I felt that I was subtly and implicitly requested to become an executor, with (now I know) very misleading messages about “participating” in a profound innovation. 

Technology has its own roadmap without necessarily connecting to human motive and purpose. So for a while, I was torn between the good feeling of contributing to scientific and technological advances and much deeper sensing that something fundamental was missing in the discourse.

Until the time came for me to leave in search of the lost piece.

Two modes of thought

Among many thinkers that illuminate my path during this searching journey, I got fascinated by the work of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner on narrative thought. (1)
Bruner distinguishes between logico-scientific thought and narrative thought. These two ways of thinking do not exclude each other, they are complementary, and we do need both.

During the last centuries of human history however, the narrative thought has been progressively undermined, if not silenced, to give abnormous, unbalanced space to the logico-scientific mode of thinking.
The table below reports some characteristics of the two thinking modes.

Limits of the Logico-scientific thought Benefits of the Narrative thought
Imperfect generalizations Contextuality and reflexivity
Tacit justification Expression of purpose and motive
Rigid consistency Temporal sensitivity
Non-contradiction Unpredictability and paradox

Imperfect Generalizations vs Contextuality and reflexivity

The logico-scientific mode operates by generalization, and by applying “universally true” conditions. Any phenomenon (eg, event, entity or “problem”) is abstracted from context and the knowledge is organized in definitions and categories. The narrative thought, conversely, is sensitive to the situational particularity and therefore provides the necessary condition for meaning creation. As Gregory Bateson said, without context, there is no meaning. (2)

Tacit justification vs Expression of purposes and motives

The narrative mode of thinking constantly reminds us that behind a story there is a storyteller, behind a narrative, a narrator.
It connects significantly to our own specific experience and engages our imaginative and creative capacity toward making meaning of it. It seeks universal understanding grounded in our personal motives and purposes. It is therefore meaningful and heartful.
This primarily means that an outcome is not a logical necessity, it does not possess a top-down truth. The fact that an event is considered an instance of general law is called ‘tacit justification’.
Within the narrative mindset, we talk about “choice”, “perspective”, in the logico-scientific mindset we talk about “necessity”.

Rigid time consistency vs Temporal sensitivity

Logico-scientific thought is also timeless. What is true now, it will be true tomorrow. The same event today or tomorrow has the same significance. That is very different in a narration where every event localized in time has his own peculiar significance. Further, the narrative mode seeks to connect apparently non-related events into a meaningful whole. A crucial feature of this thinking mode is forging the links between exceptional and ordinary events. The laser power of the moment, the transformation that happens in an imperceptible instant.

Non-contradiction vs Unpredictability

The logico-scientific mindset derives his own reason from pre-established logic rules. Every anomaly, uncertainty, contradiction is a problem, while narrative readily incorporates them into unfolding stories. It is often from the unpredictable, the paradox, the conventionally called “irrational”, that the narrative creates new meaning.

Narrative, meaning, and complexity

Remarkably, the principles and values of the New Science (modern physics and biology), such as uncertainty, chaos, paradox, self-organization, relational field, resonate with the narrative view. Narrating provides thus a mental landscape and a tool to overcome a paradigm rooted in seventeenth-century science and still very alive today.
At this very moment in human history, we are dramatically experiencing the limitations and the consequences of an overall dominating logico-scientific paradigm. The narrative mind
 opens the landscape of a new level of consciousness, linked to the emerging perception of the complexity of the world.

From observer-scientist to participant-narrator: a transformational journey

Personally, I dived into the limits of the logico-scientific thought that contributed to my disconnection from a deeper personal motive and from the participation to an authentic collective purpose.
I experience narrative as an invitation to reconnect deeply to ourselves, to our rich context and to our unique, significant experiences. It allows the unique voice inside us to emerge, our authentic story to naturally unfold, our profound participation in Life to take place
from below and from within. (3) It is a mindset for grasping complexity, as it does not offer a unique answer, but opens the space to construct multiple worlds. Narrative accesses complexity and our capacity of making meaning of it.

In my journey in search of the lost piece, I experienced a profound shift from being an observer-scientist to become a participant-narrator. This has primarily restored in me a deep connection to a sense of the whole in Life. Acquiring a narrative mindset is inherently transformational.

  1. J. Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds
  2. G. Bateson, Mind and Nature
  3. C. Swart, Re-Authoring the World 

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